If you go down to the woods today…

I first met Meg Lamoon about 2 years ago, at a party. We were dressed as pirates. It was a pirate party. That bit isn’t relevant of course but I do like to set the scene.. We got chatting and she told me she was training to be a Forest School Leader.

“Sorry. A what?” I might have said (In a pirate voice, obvs)

I’d never heard of Forest School.

Meg explained “It might sound like a new fangled ‘trend’ but it was actually developed in 1993 and it is based on Scandinavian early years practice which is predominantly, out door, child-led, play-led learning.

Forest school refers to a ‘philosophy’ as opposed to a specific physical space and it’s principles are centred around children being able to explore nature, take risks appropriate to the environment, and make their own choices.”

To be honest I’d had half a barrel of rum at this point so I was really none the wiser due to being a bit squiffy.

The conversation then moved on to other subjects (which are best not repeated here) and after all the guests had gone home and even the party host himself had shlepped off to bed, Meg and I were still larking about, fighting each other with foam swords and doing impressions of Orville. It was a beautiful moment.

Needless to say the next day involved a morbid hangover, some hot sweaty Orville-based cringes and a profusely apologetic text to the party host, for outstaying our welcome and annoying everybody.

The next time I heard from Meg was a couple of months later, when she got in touch to ask if my youngest daughter Holly would like to take part in her pilot Forest School programme, at the end of which Meg would be assessed by her tutor and would mean the completion of her level 3 forest school training.

‘Most definitely!’ I replied (I’d dropped the pirate voice by now – and Orville’s). I still wasn’t completely sure what forest school was all about but it sounded like an uber cool thing for my daughter to get involved in.

A short while later Meg got in touch again to say that her FS assistant was unable to make the dates and would I be up for helping out?

I dusted off my level 3 early years and child care certificate and Meg arranged for me to have a DBS check (apparently she couldn’t just take my word for it that I wasn’t a total nutcase, and anyway the last time she’d seen me I had been drunkenly brandishing a sword).

I must admit I was concerned that spending a whole day outdoors in chilly late October would be challenging, what if it was freezing cold and damp and miserable and well, a bit boring?

But Meg’s advice was thus “At Forest School we believe that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”.

My daughter and I donned layers of warm clothing and topped those off with a waterproof outer layer, walking boots, hats, scarves, gloves etc. We were ready.

We then spent 1 day a week for 6 weeks hanging out in a beautiful patch of woodland with Meg and half a dozen other pre schoolers.

We did not get cold.

We did not get damp.

We most certainly did not get bored.

So what did we do?

Meg explained to me that Forest School is all about giving the children opportunities to explore and make their own choices about how they interact with the outside space and nature. The FS area had been prepped and a red rope cordoned off the area within which the children were allowed to explore. The first session included a safety chat and the children were told about the rope and it’s purpose of letting them know how far they could go. Meg also encouraged the children to devise a list of rules for ‘their space’. This meant the children immediately felt a sense of ownership over their patch of wood and they took pride in sticking to the rules and reminding each other of the boundaries they’d created for themselves. Of course these included all of the necessary health and safety advice like ‘Don’t put anything in your mouth such as berries, plants, mushrooms etc’ and what to do if you need the toilet.

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All mod cons

The main ‘circle area’ was sheltered by a large tarpaulin which Meg had strung between the trees overhead and this was where the children would reconvene for discussion / reflection time, lunch and snack time and story time. The ‘circle’ was defined by large logs which provided bench seating in an ‘all around the campfire’ style.

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Hot chocolate and biscuits..mmm

There was a designated mud slide created on a suitably muddy bank, a cluster of trees which would later house a ‘den’ made by the children, of logs propped up against a tree in a tipi style.

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Mud Sliiiide!

There was a bug hotel made from wooden pallets stacked up and filled with logs, rolls of old carpet, pipes, straw and various other creature comforts.

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Checking in at the ‘Bug Hotel’

And along a short windy path the children were greeted by the magical sight of a fairy door set in to  the base of a tree, complete with a tiny swing and a fairy washing line!

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Chez Fairies

Meg had a variety of activities planned such as moulding clay faces on the tree trunks, collecting materials and making stick men, bug hunting, a garlic trail, potion making and lots more but the children were not expected to join in if they didn’t want to. Some children just preferred to make their own fun, mixing up mud pies, poking about in the leaves, collecting twigs and slipping about on the mud slide. The planning is also adapted and guided by the individual children so the activities are tailored specifically to their interests.

The key thing about forest school is that children are not ‘taught’ in the traditional way. Meg explained that FS leaders must resist the urge to intervene in a child’s learning or to ‘show’ them how to do something. Our job was to ask questions and facilitate. This results in the child’s learning experience being far more powerful because it has come from their own exploration and discovery rather than from a leader’s point of view.

Over the six weeks I saw my daughter and the rest of the group of pre-schoolers grow in confidence. It was, for them, a unique experience; a way of learning and interacting with their surroundings which was so different from the routine and structure of nursery or pre-school.

The difference in the way they interacted with their patch of woodland over the 6 weeks was remarkable too. On the first day the children were slow to embrace the freedom and lack of structure which they were so used to. It took a little while for them to truly accept that if they wanted to roll around on a sloppy muddy slide, they absolutely could. Some were slightly perturbed when they got dirty hands for the first time and wanted to clean them straight away. But once they understood what their time in the woods was all about, they began to embrace the space and their natural instincts took over.

By the end of the six weeks these children were rocking the forest school vibe, totally at home in the place they had been visiting each week. It was obvious that they felt completely comfortable and that the area had become so familiar. Rather than the sessions becoming repetitive and the children getting bored and ‘forest-schooled-out’ the children were more inspired than ever. They couldn’t wait to delve in to their magical patch of land and get stuck in with whatever their imaginations would conjure up for them.

 

Since last autumn, Meg’s Forest school programmes have come a long way. She has run various forest schools in different locations and I have followed her projects on Facebook. My time with her pilot group and my daughter’s thorough enjoyment of it (she still talks about it now) has left a strong impression on me. I’m not cut out to be a forest school leader myself but Meg’s affinity with the outdoors, with nature and indeed with children is highly admirable. Basically, Forest School is her calling, I reckon. And if I were ever stranded on an island or in a dark wood with Meg, I know everything would be ok, she’d keep us safe. She’d string up a hammock, make a fire, source food, build a den and fend off any predators. The woman has SKILLZ. I would be a total waste of space, scream if I saw a frog, cry if I got a splinter and panic, swell up and promptly get eaten should a predator come near. In fact, if Meg and I were stranded together, she would do well to just eat me and be done with it.

I digress.

This summer, Meg has been running a programme at Betteshanger country park in Deal, Kent.

On day two of Meg’s FS, it just so happened that the kids and I were heading over to the brilliant play park at Betteshanger with a friend and I couldn’t resist going to find them, deep in the woods and take a peek at what they were up to. I left the girls in the park with my friend (Meg adheres to very high adult:child ratios and I couldn’t just rock up with extra kids!) and took a stroll in to the forest.

Here is what I found:

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A beautiful patch of cool woodland, shaded by the fronds of the tall green trees. Warm sunlight sprinkling through the pale leaves, speckling the ground like nature’s own disco ball.

Children, 16 in total, were busily occupied in their own small clusters. Some were working together to build a den. Two more were huddled inside another den a short distance away. Two were swinging in a hammock together, a small group were gathered around one of the Forest School leaders ready to play a game of ‘Bob the Rock’. One child was happily to-ing and fro-ing on a rope swing, legs stretched out, head back and hair dangling down to the leafy ground.

A child came up and showed me a ladybird she had found, that was now having a little stroll on the back of her hand.

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Ladybird Ladybird

Every single child was engaged, happy and calm. Not one was aimlessly wandering around, unsure what to do.

The space was laid out superbly. Again, the red rope stretched around the boundary – this time a lot bigger than the pilot programme. The fire circle was also larger to accommodate the 16 children and the 3 adults.

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Fire circle

 

Other areas housed a rope swing,

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Meg!

 

a hammock,

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Time to chill

several dens which the children had built – in various stages of construction

and an inviting circle of yoga mats at the far end of the space were awaiting their next participants. For this FS had the uber cool addition of yoga built in to the programme, run by Carly, a qualified children’s yoga instructor.

 

Alongside Carly and Meg was Kat, also a fully trained Forest School leader. Kat also works with Meg for the Kent Wildlife Trust.

The whole scene had a beautiful vibe and I wanted to stay all day and do yoga and weave willow and hunt for bugs and cook on the campfire, but alas, I had two hungry children and a poor frazzled friend to get back to. But I felt inspired to write about Meg’s forest school. Because quite frankly, it is awesome.

I believe it is a truly worthwhile way for children to spend their time. If you’re looking for a club for your little ones (or slightly bigger ones) to get involved in over the last week of the summer holidays and you happen to live near Deal in Kent, I would strongly recommend booking them in for a day or two or even the whole week (The longer the children spend at FS the more beneficial it is to them, emotionally, physically and spiritually).

There may be one or two spaces left this week! – you can contact Meg at reallywildwooders@gmail.com to find out more.

I can guarantee that whatever you’re child’s ability, personality or disposition; that they will get so much out of FS. They’ll come home exhausted, grubby, happy and confident, having gained something profound from simply being intertwined with nature for an extended period of time. They will explore, take risks, create, learn, grow, use tools, gain skills and have new experiences in unusual territory, without even realising that all of this is happening. And the best part? There is not a single digital device or screen to distract them from the natural beauty of their surroundings. And for that reason alone it is worth signing them up.

 

If you can’t make this summer’s FS, then do follow Really Wild Wooders on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/reallywildwooders to find out when and where Meg’s next programme will run.

Meg is a fully qualified FS leader and member of the Forest School Association.

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2 thoughts on “If you go down to the woods today…

  1. What a fab idea! I’ve just sat (night feeding!) and read your blog to my other half who’s a huge advocate of outdoor learning (he runs DofE & World Challenge at the secondary school where he teaches) and already wants to sign our little boy up! Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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